IIGATA PREFECTURE, Japan — Engineers at the Nihonkai liquefied natural gas import terminal on the banks of the Sea of Japan are quietly retooling a maze of 1970s-vintage pipelines and storage tanks to handle shipments of much-needed shale gas from Louisiana.
But nobody at this massive terminal in northwestern Japan dares predict how long the country will have a robust appetite for imported LNG as calls grow louder for restarting Japan’s 48 reactors, which supplied almost a third of the nation’s power.
Susumu Yashima, president of Nihonkai LNG Company Ltd., said gas demand skyrocketed when Japan shut down its nuclear power after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami crippled three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011.
“Compared to before the earthquake, demand [for gas] has increased 60 to 70 percent,” Yashima said through an interpreter.
Gas demand also jumped after floods interrupted hydropower projects and gas-fired power plants in northwestern Japan, Yashima said.
Seventy-nine shipments — 4.9 million tons of LNG — have arrived at the terminal this year, up from 3.39 million tons of LNG in 58 shipments in 2011, the year the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.
LNG that arrives here in tankers is pumped into eight massive tanks and later gasified as it’s passed through tubes sprinkled with seawater. Gas is then sent to Tohoku Electric Power Co., which generates electricity in Japan’s hilly, northwest region, which includes Niigata Prefecture.
The prefecture is known for its rice and sake and for being one of the snowiest places in the world, with one of its cities, Tokamachi, getting almost 460 inches annually. It’s also home to the world’s largest nuclear reactor, the now-idle Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.
With its reactors shuttered, Japan is positioned to become a prime consumer of U.S. shale gas. More than 20 North American companies are awaiting U.S. government approval to send the LNG abroad to terminals like Nihonkai’s here.
[+] Engineers at the sprawling Nihonkai LNG import terminal on the banks of the Sea of Japan are quietly retooling their aging equipment to welcome shale gas from Louisiana’s Cameron LNG terminal in coming years. Photo by Hannah Northey.
The Nihonkai terminal is partially owned by Tohoku Electric Power, which signed a 20-year agreement this year to take LNG from the Cameron LNG terminal in Louisiana, home state of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D), who’s touted her efforts to promote the export of U.S. gas in her re-election fight.
Louisiana LNG, engineers say, could arrive here as early as 2018.
To prepare, engineers are upgrading pumps at the terminal to take higher-pressure, methane-rich U.S. gas, Yashima said.
The LNG from the United States, he added, would join vessels arriving now from Malaysia, Australia, Qatar, Russia and Indonesia. Nihonkai is also entering contracts, he said, with new partners like Equatorial Guinea, Peru and Nigeria.
“Those are countries that we hadn’t had a relationship with before,” he said.
‘Little by little’
Yashima’s comments shine a bright light on what LNG export advocates are calling a “closing window of opportunity” for U.S. exports.